Xuan ThaiESPN Senior Writer10 minutes of reading
Aaron Rodgers is known for spending the offseason in what could be described as unconventional methods of self-reflection. In 2020, the Green Bay Packers quarterback traveled to Peru to try ayahuasca, a plant-based psychoactive drug traditionally used in indigenous ceremonies, and was almost stuck in South America as the coronavirus began to shut down the world.
He has openly discussed his affinity for retreats — yoga retreats, meditation retreats, silent meditation retreats. So when he recently shared the news that he was about to enter a four-night darkness retreat — a visit he’d been planning for the past four months — it sparked a lot of online conversation, some good, some not so good.
“I think we could all use a dose of turning off our phones once in a while and disconnecting from society, some people don’t want to do some days and nights of darkness and that’s okay,” Rodgers said recently on “The Pat The McAfee Show.” “But to outright judge it as if you have any understanding of it, that’s not exactly a way to come together as a community and connect better as a people.”
Rodgers, 39, completed his dark retreat at Sky Cave on Wednesday, according to Scott Berman, who owns the facility on hundreds of acres of wooded land in southern Oregon. The quarterback, who has played his entire 18-year NFL career with Green Bay, has not said whether he will play in 2023. Before entering the retreat, he said he hoped to “have a better sense of where I am in my life ,” but wasn’t going to retreat just to find out if he wants to play in 2023 or retire. He is under contract with the Packers for $59.465 million guaranteed if he plays in 2023.
Berman said the room where Rodgers spent his time is a partially underground, Hobbit-like structure with 300 square feet of space, devoid of light, with a queen-size bed, a bathroom and a meditation-like mat on the floor. It has full power, so the lights can be turned on at any time from inside the room.
The retreat has three darkrooms and is booked for the next 18 months, Berman said, with a waiting list of hundreds. A further seven rooms are planned to meet demand.
Retreating into darkness is a spiritual practice that is thousands of years old, originating throughout India, China and Tibet. The Sky Cave website traces the roots of darkness to various ancient practices and rituals. Some medical benefits are possible, but it says these benefits have not been scientifically proven. In discussing the origins of the retreats, Berman acknowledged the various cultures that he says have practices related to darkness, such as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, and the Kogi, an indigenous people in Colombia who Berman explains select certain children at birth to live in darkness. with their mothers.
Berman, a Skidmore College graduate, began exploring alternative therapies more than 20 years ago while finishing school in east central New York. He lives on the property with his wife and two young children and has hosted more than 300 dark retreat guests.
When you talk to Berman about the room and its purpose, sadness is a theme that comes up often. He likes to say that “discomfort is the door”.
“We see discomfort as a negative thing and not to say it’s positive, but it’s such a hard structure that discomfort is bad,” Berman said while sitting among the trees in Oregon. “The moment someone feels uncomfortable, they pick up the phone, they go for a walk, they eat food, or they do healthy activities, they do yoga, they go for a run. There are a million things people do to avoid discomfort.
“If someone is sad in our culture, it’s like, ‘Let’s fix you right away.'” There’s not a real genuine exploration of, “Why are you sad?” Berman said. “What happens if you just include the sadness and rest with the sadness , and is with it, without trying to change it? What happens from there? It’s a unique aspect of the dark retreat.”
At Sky Cave, the entire experience is largely self-guided. There is no strict rule that guests must be in the dark at all times. Everyone is invited to go for a walk in the forest if the need arises, turn on the light if the feeling becomes too much, or just walk. The door remains unlocked and ready to be opened.
Berman checks on his guests once a day, more if necessary, and offers brief contemplative prompts. These visits happen in the evenings when he delivers a day’s meals through a two-way wooden door. It is the only time guests get a sense of the time of day or that 24 hours have passed.
“I’m able to have a little window into what’s going on. And sometimes it can be a 10-second conversation and sometimes it can be 20 minutes,” Berman said. “It just depends on what feels appropriate and what that person wants.”
Colin O’Brady, an endurance athlete who has summited Mount Everest twice, crossed Antarctica solo and completed the “Explorer’s Grand Slam” in record time, completed an eight-day, seven-night darkness retreat earlier this month, staying in the same room that Rodgers occupied.
O’Brady said the thoughts Berman shared with him during his time in the dark were remarkable and would trigger deep contemplation.
“He’s just wise,” O’Brady said. “There’s a couple of little thought starters and then he just goes … I thought that his very, very subtle guidance throughout was a really beautiful byproduct.”
A self-described extrovert, O’Brady said the darkness was a chance to rest, reset and refocus.
“People always ask me what’s more important, the physical or the mental side of it?” he said. “If you take my first solo crossing of Antarctica … to be able to pull a 375-pound sled, 1 mile, let alone a thousand miles, that’s a minimum physical requirement for that.
“So of course I train my body to get stronger to maintain the physical challenge of it. But I often say the physical side of it is just the table stakes. There are a lot of people who can pull that sled a certain amount of distance, but that basically just gets you to the starting line.”
O’Brady said he likes to say “the most important muscle any of us has is the six inches between our ears.”
“I’m always looking for ways to harness the power of my mind,” he said, “and I thought being alone in the dark would really be beneficial in a number of ways, emotionally, spiritually.”
He said he might understand why Rodgers is interested in going into the dark for four nights. Beyond building mental muscle, time in isolation is a way to disconnect.
“We can turn on our social media, we can scroll through our phone, and we can turn on Netflix,” he said. “We pretty much have the ability to constantly have input, but I think as humans over time, we’re not necessarily hardwired for it. [I need] time to reflect, time to recalibrate, time to face myself and explore the dark corners of my own psyche, but ultimately overcome that discomfort and thrive on the other side.”
Hannah Eden, a personal trainer and influencer, spent five days and nights in the dark in November 2022. She said it was a chance for her to be quiet and, as she describes it, “lift the hood.”
“I always liked doing really hard things. I rode my bike [and ran] around the whole of Iceland in nine days, I’ve run hundreds of miles and I always thought I was testing my mind,” she said. “But it became very clear every time I started to find a stillness in my life. , when the pandemic happened, I never actually tested my mind.
“I’ve been able to use these acts of momentum and movement as something to avoid being alone with myself. [The darkness retreat] was the most intense, it was extremely difficult, but also the most beautiful experience I think I’ve ever had.”
O’Brady and Eden spoke of their approach to the Darkness Retreat in similar terms; with an action plan, a “to-do list” of how you keep busy during the days. But as the days went by, those plans for meditation, breathwork, journaling and exercise went out the window and eventually a “surrender” occurred. They described it as a surrender to silence and an awareness of being in the present. Both also described a newfound vividness of memories, additional details, smells and sounds from past experiences.
Each emerged from the darkness with their own personal lessons while inside the room. Eden taught about forgiveness. O’Brady learned about internal fulfillment.
At the end of his stay while still in the dark, O’Brady wrote in his diary in large letters, “I wish I could stay; I have touched the quietest places of my soul in the dark.”
After he emerged, O’Brady went back inside and spent another 14 hours in the dark. Both said they would do it again. Eden has booked a new dark haven for later this year.
There is no formal screening process for guests wishing to attend the Sky Cave. Berman said he can usually determine fairly quickly if someone will benefit from the experience or if they aren’t a good fit. He said that it is those who have a healthy amount of fear about what they are about to embark on that get the most out of the experience rather than those who want to do it and conquer it as a mere physical feat.
Sarah Meyer Tapia, associate director of Health & Human Performance and head of the wellness program at Stanford University, said questions of safety and support should be asked before entering any practice, especially one as solitary as a dark retreat.
“How [do] they support the psychological safety when someone is in there and completely in the dark alone with themselves,” she asked. “How do they feel supported in processing that and not further damaging processes that may not be healthy within themselves.”
Tapia’s research areas include the study of high performance and well-being. Although she hasn’t specifically studied darkness retreats, she said meditation isn’t one size fits all.
“Meditation is not a panacea for everyone and every situation,” Tapia said. “There are moments when it’s contraindicated, someone spiraling into a psychotic episode or even a depressive or anxious episode to go inward and sit in it is kind of to reinforce it.”
While she expressed some concerns about blackout retreats, she said mindfulness in general is important for everyone.
“Rest is where the integration and the healing and the growth happens,” Tapia said. “If we stress and stress and stress without rest, we break both mentally and physically.”
She said that’s an important lesson she teaches her high-achieving students at Stanford, and it’s also a lesson for high-achieving athletes.
“Athletes’ performance and capacity to deal with pressure and to heal and recover and increase their resilience, which will be beneficial by supporting their mental and emotional well-being through practices like meditation or retreats or just inner exploration and travel and reflection,” she said . “It’s not going to take away from performance. It’s going to expand their capacity.”
But she cautioned that meditation and wellness is not a competitive sport.
“I often tell my students, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. No one is watching and no one cares,” she said. “This practice is yours. So if you think this will benefit you, great. But there is no gold star for enduring X, Y, or Z.”
A lesson also echoed by Rodgers when he spoke to McAfee: “There’s no hierarchy in my view of spirituality or meditation or mindfulness. We’re all trying to do the best we can on the path we’re on.”